OGC Nice v AS Monaco
By Roy Delaney. Pictures by Catherine McCarthy
It’s always a wrench for a club to leave their historical home patch to up stumps for a fancy new stadium. But when that ground was the glorious old Stade Municipal du Ray, nestling cosily in the middle of the principal habitat of their loyal fanbase, and the new ground was a spanky new enormodome on the edge of town, the locals feared the worst.
Admittedly though, OGC Nice had grown out of their historical home. The rickety 18,696 capacity plot may have had the very lifeblood of the club running through it, but in the upwardly mobile world of modern French football it was a bit of an anachronism.
Many times over the previous few decades had they tried to upgrade, ship out or move to a friendly nearby town, but an especially troublesome local council always ended up making it tricky for them.
That was until France got awarded the 2016 European Championships and the city decided it wanted a bite of those lucrative apples, and suddenly fast-tracked the giant Allianz Riviera stadium.
But despite being pitched in the middle of farmland, over a mountain and up a dusty way out to the West of the city, the Nice fans shouldn’t have worried. Because not only is the Allianz probably the nicest of the new grounds I’ve visited over the years, but the city seem to be doing everything in their power to get the punters there.
As with many cities, the match-day experience truly begins at the bus stop. Gaggles of skinny ultra boys festooned in red and black crowded around the inauspicious bus stop behind the hospital, singing happy-go-lucky songs about chucking their nearby city state rivals into the sea.
As we piled onto the bus, we wondered why the driver was giving us a funny look as we tried to chuck him our fares, until a helpful local explained that the city laid on these buses free to the fans. A seven-mile journey from the city centre out into the rural wilds for no money at all is a glorious novelty for we English fans, and it was a lively, if crammed, journey from start to finish.
The light was fading as we approached the ground. The local traffic police were escorting the bus through the tiny mountain villages, shutting off crossroads as we approached, and turning the whole valley into a massive one-way rotary ring road. And then, suddenly, as we crested another hillside, there it was, peeking out of the gloom – the angular white edges of the Allianz. It was a site to halt the breath of even the most seasoned groundhopper.
The bus, now part of a massive convoy of similar vehicles from across the Riviera, kicked us out in the expensive car park. Already, this seemed like a ground built for the convenience of fans, rather than the kind of people-cramming shoeboxes we get at home.
Arriving an hour or so early, we took a wander around the locality, although to be honest there wasn’t too much to see. Tiny farmhouses with scratty winter crops and the occasional goat ringed the ground, but a few enterprising smallholders had rented their back alleys out to a clump of food stalls – although these were considerably more Gallic than your usual crispy burger fayre.
Mostly, this meant hefty fun-filled baguettes, but the biggest queue – and the one we joined – was for a smashing local snack called socca, a kind of dense chickpea pancake, served in rustic chunks and comprehensively floured in ground white pepper. Once discovered, I lived on these little beauties for the next few days.
As we entered the ground itself, we were taken with how clean and pristine it all was. No sticky coca-cola stains or hastily scribbled graffiti anywhere – but then it had been open for a mere six weeks at this point.
Indeed, the club shop wasn’t finished yet, and they were selling club goods from a trestle table outside the ground, all lit nicely by builders’ lamps, casting giant shadows of their patiently waiting customers across the white sides of the stadium.
What also struck us was the ease of access. Once we’d got through the unexpectedly friendly security check, we were straight onto the concourse, with a cracking view of the pitch. No kettling corridors or holding areas – the whole entrance area was open plan the whole way round – bar a tiny segment for the away fans – and you could even go right up to the glass walls and watch the smart set in the boxes eating their prawn cocktails.
They’d even sorted out the inevitable issue of transporting the famous rowdy boy atmosphere of du Ray into the new ground, selling tickets for a specific ultras stand behind one goal to season-ticket holders alone. This caused one heck of an atmosphere, with the noisy element all crammed into one end, directly opposite the away supporters.
Now, I always wondered who Monaco fans were. I mean, where do they all come from? A visit to the principality a few days later showed us just how tiny the place really was. And while it’s densely populated, the upmarket motors and uber posh shops suggested that its residents would be more inclined to an afternoon at the polo than an icy December night on the terraces.
Nice is only a 15-minute train ride away, so do they come from the surrounding mountain villages? Or are they just contrary Cote d’Azur residents who’ve taken against OGC? Whoever they were, they knew how to make a racket, and the call and response between the rival schools throughout the match never let up.
The only decent action that OGC had on the pitch was when they set a massive bloody eagle free to fly around the ground for a few minutes before kick-off.
But what of the match? Nice had a tiny, rough side, made up mainly of French nationals and African colonials, but they weren’t a patch on the recently remonied Monagasques. Shepherded by arch tinkerer Claudio Ranieri, big names and exciting youngsters the stature of Sergio Romero, Lucas Ocampos, Eric Abidal, Ricardo Carvallho and João Moutinho ripped through the Nice side as if they were a gang of plucky amateurs having their big night out in the cup.
Monaco won the match by a comfortable three goals to nil, and the only decent action that OGC had on the pitch was when they set a massive bloody eagle free to fly around the ground for a few minutes before kick-off.
Any English team who draw Monaco in the Champions League had better watch out, because these boys played some of the best-organised football I’ve seen in a long time.
But at the end of the night, the real stars were the gorgeous new ground, and the terrific Nissart fans. If England manage to falter their way to the next Euros, I can only hope that we’re based here, because both the ground, and the people who worked there, were among the finest I’ve encountered at a top-level match. And if you just fancy a long weekend in the South of France, I’d wholeheartedly suggest a trip up the big valley.